Sunday, December 14, 2014

Film Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

How do you even manage to make this boring?
What's the worst thing about Michael Bay?

It's a necessary question, since few filmmakers are as critically reviled as Michael Bay. Probably only Aaron Seltzer and Jason Freiberg, the crown princes of terrible, laugh-free parodies, and Uwe Boll, the king of joyless video game adaptations, come close. Yet Bay is in a whole other league since, unlike those three, his films actually make a lot of money and shape the cultural dialogue. He's also far more influential than they could ever hope to be since his chaotic visual style - nicknamed "Bayhem" - has helped (a word I use begrudgingly) shape blockbuster cinema for two decades. Why does a man whose commercial instincts are beyond a shadow of doubt make films which are almost universally hated?

The answers can easily be found in the fourth installment in Bay's Transformers series, Age of Extinction. (Technically, the series belongs to Hasbro, seeing as they created the toys upon which it is based and all, but Bay has done so much to craft these films in his own teal and orange image that it's impossible to attribute credit to anyone else.)  Like the previous films in the series, it's long, incoherent, peppered with some of the worst attempts at humour you'll see in a mainstream film, and underwritten by a moral and visual ugliness which is actually sort of breathtaking.

This time, the film trades out most of the meat puppets who formed the cast of the first three films and replaces them with new ones, some of whom are indistinguishable from the ones they replaced. Taking the place of Shia LaBeouf as the nominal lead is Mark Wahlberg, which would be an improvement if the human components of these films mattered one whit. Wahlberg plays Cade Yaegar (!), a Texan (!!) roboticist (!!!) who stumbles upon the damaged and deactivated remains of Optimus Prime, though Cade initially thinks he's just a broken down truck. Having accidentally revived the leader of the Autobots, Cade and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz, replacing Rosie Huntington-Whiteley but reusing her one or two facial expressions) and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor, who never decides if he's Irish or not) are drawn into a complex conspiracy which involves the CIA (represented by Kelsey Grammer, because why not?), a shady industrialist (Stanley Tucci) and a plot to create new Transformers while destroying the old ones and creating fields of an element called Transformium in order to...

Look, the story doesn't matter. Things explode, people die, fights happen, all around a cast which would be great in almost any other movie.

One of the worst aspects of Bay's work which is not pointed out as often as it should be is how smug it is. There's a kind of douchey, fratboy superiority to a lot of his work, and to the Transformers films in particular, that runs counter to their focus on scrappy underdogs triumphing against shadowy forces. This is on full display during an early scene in which Cade and his best friend Lucas (T.J. Miller, giving one of the few bearable performances in the film) go to an old movie theatre in order to buy scrap from the owners. One of them talks about how the theatre closed down because movies got worse, becoming nothing but remakes and sequels.

From most filmmakers, that'd be an on-the-nose commentary about the dire state of modern Hollywood (one which is eerily reminiscent of the opening to Paul Schrader's The Canyons). Coming from Michael Bay who, need I remind you, is directing his fourth fucking Transformers movie, and whose Platinum Dunes production company has been responsible for a slew of remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), sequels (The Purge: Anarchy, the upcoming second Ninja Turtles movie) and prequels to remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning), it comes off as unbearably self-satisfied. It's clearly Bay thumbing his nose at the people who decry the kind of films that he makes, something which he is perfectly in his rights to do as an artist, but he does it in such a blunt, dumb way that he comes off as a sore winner.

You can also see that smugness being put to jingoistic purposes in the way that he constantly frames his heroes using low angles to make them look like cool-as-fuck colossi bestriding the world around them, or the way his camera swoops across Texan cornfields while teenagers drive around in a truck. Age of Extinction is probably Bay's most fetishistic films in terms of how it treats the iconography of Americana. (Which in itself is somewhat ironic, considering that about a third of the film takes place in China for purely commercial reasons.) Even the Yaegar house has a Norman Rockwell quality to it, with its pure white paint job and wide open spaces, while Cade's industrious, stick-to-itiveness comes across as a fairly pure expression of the optimism at the heart of the American character. In that regards, Age of Extinction is probably Bay's most optimistically American film, though the glee with which he destroys downtown Chicago (for the second time in two films) suggests that, in his mind, there are parts of America which are more American than others.

Around those kernels of positivity, Bay constructs a monstrous cacophony of destruction and tedium. The action sequences in the film are shot with the same chaotic disregard for space and tension that has typified his work for the last decade, and while the effects for the Transformers are still impressive (though there are numerous points where their interactions with the humans and their environment are laughably shoddy), the fight scenes themselves feel tossed off and listless. Battles go on long past the point at which they might be interesting, then get resolved so quickly that it barely registers, usually because the film will then switch to another fight already in progress. Forget the frenetic cutting or the lack of decent coverage, because Paul Greengrass' two Bourne films showed that you can tell a compelling story using that approach. The problem with Bay's action is that it all looks the same, with no internal rhythms to differentiate the fights or to make one feel more important than the others. It's not bad action that's the problem, it's bad drama.

On top of that, you have the way Bay crams a lingering shot of a character's charred corpse into a movie that's supposedly for children. A Transformers movie doesn't have to be meaningful, or even particularly good, but it's a series based on toys for children which is filled with voyeuristic shots of young, nubile women and (terrible) innuendoes about their bodies. Age of Extinction enters a whole new realm of sexual weirdness with a prolonged discussion of Texas's "Romeo & Juliet" laws in order to explain why Tessa and Shane could sleep together despite her being underage, answering a question that no one was asking in a way which is profoundly sleazy. Even more damning, he turns the Autobots into dickheads who murder people left and right, both intentionally and unintentionally, making it impossible to care whether they succeed or not. This is not a series in need of antiheroes, and certainly not ones whose quips are so badly written.

To return to the question posed at the start, the worst thing about Michael Bay is not his visual style (in fact I'd go far to say that he is one of the most visually striking commercial filmmakers working today - it's just that he does nothing interesting with those images), the overbearing smugness, the rampant misogyny, the bad jokes, or the general lack of interest in humans. It's his pacing. All of those things would be substantially mitigated if he could deliver a fighting robots movie that was under two hours, but it takes 40 minutes before the story even gets going. It's really incredible that a film that is in constant motion goes nowhere fast.

Grade: D-